California is one of the largest and richest states in the nation, home to some of the world’s most diverse and exciting cities. So it should come as no surprise that the Golden State is an excellent place to go to college.
In addition to famous private schools like Stanford, the California Institute of Technology, and numerous others, the state has an excellent university system.
Within that system are some of the most impressive names in higher education, schools such as the center of the counter-cultural movement UC – Berkeley or the intellectually rigorous UC – Riverside.
Just hearing those names will fill some readers with the hope of spending days gaining education under the beautiful California sun. While it’s good to have aspirations and hopes, that’s only half of the battle. To get into the school of your choice, you need to know your odds.
Traditionally, state schools tend to have higher acceptance rates than private schools. But don’t be fooled, the schools don’t take just anyone. You’ll need to study hard and get strong application materials together if you want to get that acceptance letter.
To help you plan for the future, this list covers the best schools in the University of California system. We’ve ranked them according to their placement on the national list published by U.S. News & World Report.
Each entry describes the appeal of the school, but it also tells you the acceptance rate, so you know it is hard to get in.
With this information, you’ll be ready to make the grade in sunny Califron-i-a.
9. University of California – Santa Cruz
Since its founding in 1965, the University of California at Santa Cruz has emphasized cross-disciplinary education. The school follows the “Oxbridge” model, taking its cues from England’s prestigious Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
A member of the Association of American Universities, UC Santa Cruz emphasizes research and innovation. It achieves those goals thanks to its unique facilities.
The school is home to the country’s oldest organic farm and gardening program, which allowed it to pioneer organic horticulture methods used around the world.
Housed in the Baskin School of Engineering, the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering created the UCSC Genome Browser, a crucial part of the Human Genome Project.
The School of Engineering is also home to the Center for Adaptive Optics, operated by the National Science Foundation.
Thanks to its commitment to sustainability and conservation, UC Santa Cruz has positively impacted its host city. It has helped pioneer green methods, making the town one of the nicest places to live in the state of California.
ACCEPTANCE RATE: 65%
8. University of California – Merced
Founded in 2005, the University of California – Merced is the youngest school in the system. It was founded to address educational needs in the system and immediately made a positive impact, enrolling 8,847 undergraduates and 696 graduates.
With the largest percentage of low-income and underrepresented ethnic groups in the UC system, UC – Merced is improving the lives of its students every day.
Part of that work begins with the quality of its campus, which is one of the country’s most sustainable.
Every building on campus has been environmentally certified, and the school is officially carbon neutral. With more programs to expand recycling initiatives in the area and to make green technology more accessible, UC-Merced sets a positive example for its host city.
Beyond its environmental impact, the UC-Merced campus is also remarkably beautiful.
With Lake Yosemite on one side and irrigation canals snaking through the campus, the school offers a relaxing atmosphere for study. The campus includes over 40-acres of protected and uninhabited land, emphasizing space and tranquility.
ACCEPTANCE RATE: 85%
7. University of California – Riverside
While there are many metrics one can use when judging the quality of a university program, the most compelling may be those used by the magazine Washington Monthly.
Instead of the usual financial numbers and exclusivity ratings used by many outlets, the Washington Monthly judges schools according to social mobility, research, and community service.
According to those standards, UC – Riverside ranked 53rd in the nation, demonstrating its focus on improving the lives of its students.
The school boasts one of the nation’s most economically diverse student bodies, and nearly all of its undergrads graduate in four years. Thanks to its outreach programs, the school has been a popular choice for minority students.
Another reason for the school’s popularity may be its esteemed faculty. Teachers at UC – Riverside include chemist Richard R. Schrock, whose work on the olefin metathesis reaction earned him the Nobel Prize in 2005.
Another teacher at the school is Barry Barish, who won the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.
ACCEPTANCE RATE: 66%
6. University of California – Davis
How great is the education offered by the University of California – Davis? It’s often confused for an Ivy League school and is considered a “Public Ivy.”
The term Public Ivy denotes a public school of similar quality and prestige to that of Harvard, Yale, and other Ivy League elites.
The school has earned its reputation thanks to the work of its many research institutions and centers.
The California International Law Center works on international, comparative, and transnational law innovations. It partners with organizations including the American Society of International Law and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. The Center earned special praise for its work helping the refugee crisis in Darfur.
The California National Primate Research Center is focused on improving the health of humans and animals. Located on a 300-acre reserve, the Center houses approximately 4,700 monkeys and performs research on a wide range of diseases, including Alzheimer’s and AIDS.
ACCEPTANCE RATE: 46%
5. University of California – Irvine
Although it is one of the younger schools in the system, the University of California – Irvine has already established itself as one of the most impressive.
In its short 57-year history, the University has graduated several winners of the most prestigious awards in the nation.
Its alumni include Nobel Laureates such as David MacMillian and Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Chabon and Richard Ford.
UC- Irvine includes one of the most important medical programs in the system. The focus of that program is the UC Irvine Medical Center, a teaching hospital and level-1 trauma center. The facility holds 411 beds and operates numerous clinics.
Taking advantage of its portion of the University of California Natural Reserve system, the school founded the country’s first Earth System Science Department. This department trains students to address the challenges posed by climate change and work to find solutions to our most pressing concerns.
ACCEPTANCE RATE: 29%
4. University of California – San Diego
Like most of the schools on this list, the University of California – San Diego is a Tier-1 research institution, which means that it takes the need for innovative scholarly activity seriously.
But few schools in the United States can match UC – San Diego’s commitment, which is why the school is ranked 6th in the nation for its science spending. In 2019, the school allocated $1.354 billion to science research and development.
With that money, UC-San Diego operates several of the nation’s most important research centers.
Those programs include the Center for Energy Research, a national leader in fusion energy, renewable energy, and energy storage.
The Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind takes an interdisciplinary approach to exploring the biochemical and behavioral aspects of the human brain.
With all these fantastic offerings, it’s no wonder that UC – San Diego received 140,000 applications in 2021, making it the second-most popular university destination in the United States.
ACCEPTANCE RATE: 38%
3. University of California – Santa Barbara
Built on a Marine air station from World War II, the University of California – Santa Barbara began in 1891 as an independent teacher’s college and has become one of the country’s best public institutions.
Located on cliffs that sit above the Pacific Ocean, UC – Santa Barbara is one of the few colleges in the United States with its own beach.
With miles of coastline, its own lagoon, and a rocky extension called “Campus Point,” the school offers a truly unique campus experience. More than half of the students take advantage of that experience by traveling solely by bicycle, making the most of the scenery.
But of course, UC – Santa Barbara primarily exists as an institution of higher learning. To that end, the school boasts an excellent faculty full of some of the greatest minds of our generation.
Chair of Theoretical Physics at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, professor David Gross won the 2004 Nobel Prize for his contributions to the discovery of asymptotic freedom.
Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday teaches literature at UC – Santa Barbara and has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Medal of Arts.
ACCEPTANCE RATE: 37%
2. University of California – Berkeley
Founded in 1868, the University of California – Berkeley is the oldest school in the system and the first land-grant university in the state. UC – Berkeley is famous for its progressive positions and its groundbreaking work in free speech and political activism, particularly in the 1960s. But the school is also a leader in academic innovation and research.
The school has been the site of some of the most important discoveries of the past 150 years. In the fields of physical sciences, UC – Berkeley was host to the discovery of carbon 14 and the home of the Supernova Cosmology Project, which identified dark matter and found that the universe is expanding.
The first wetsuit was invented at UC – Berkeley, as was the first three-dimensional transmitter.
Outside of the science fields, UC – Berkley graduates have gone on to found influential companies. Alumni include Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Mozilla founder Mitchell Baker, and Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy.
ACCEPTANCE RATE: 18%
1. University of California – Los Angeles
The top spot on this list goes to the University of California – Los Angeles, and with good reason. A member of the select group of Public Ivies, UCLA is famous for its academic excellence.
The school has been associated with recipients of the highest honors in the world, including 27 winners of the Nobel Prize and five winners of the Turing Award.
The school ranks #1 not just on our list, but on those from other outlets as well. Niche.com gives UCLA an A+, putting it in the top spot on lists of the Best College Campuses in America, Best College Food in America, and Top Public Universities in America.
According to the highly respected Washington Monthly, UCLA is the 22nd best school in the nation, thanks to its commitment to social mobility, public service, and scholarly research.
These outlets also give UCLA special praise for its graduate schools. On nearly every list, the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies are among the top ten in the nation.
ACCEPTANCE RATE: 14%